DESPITE living in constant pain, artist Ciara Chapman says she wouldn’t go back to the person she was before her debilitating accident.
Ciara, 40, who has sciatica affecting her left leg as well as disc problems in her back following a fall down a staircase some years ago, says she now has “a better handle” on herself.
And she is keen to highlight the reality of living with pain through art, for pain awareness month which takes place in September.
Turners Cross-based Ciara used to be a real people pleaser. She was also “too sensitive in some ways and not compassionate enough in other ways”.
Now, she is more self aware and incredibly resilient.
“The accident was beginning to change me in the worst possible way,” she says, “I think I’m quite an upbeat person in general. But what happened to me was making me really mean and giving me a really dark outlook on my world.
“I was feeling sorry for myself. It was self- pity, I suppose. Then I just decided to focus on drawing. It’s a bit like art therapy. I express my feelings in a different way.”
Ciara says that she found out what people in her life were important to her. After her accident, which left her with a leg that drags, she didn’t hear from some people whose opinions she used to value.
“It made me see who I should value more. Also, I spend more time with myself and that has made me get to know myself a bit better. So (the accident) has been really good in that way.”
And to distract herself from her pain - eased somewhat by a spinal cord stimulator - Ciara looks after two pet rabbits. (Influenced in her art by Alice in Wonderland, Ciara says her accident was like falling down a rabbit hole.)
A graduate of Limerick School of Art and Design, Ciara marked last year’s pain awareness month with ‘My Chronic Pain Diary’. This year, she has made a large-scale artwork to be shown on the window of the north wall of Cork Opera House.
The mural will be accompanied by a QR code which, when scanned, will send the listener to a sound cloud document describing the image and the thinking behind it.
This is in keeping with Ciara’s desire to make the art accessible. Its very pointed title is ‘Chronic Pain is NOT make believe.’ It can be seen from September 5-30.
And for Culture Night on September 23, Ciara will give a free talk on her work at Cork Opera House. For anyone who can’t physically attend the talk, it will be available on Instagram. Ciara will also exhibit a number of illustrations in the venue for Culture Night.
She says the mural project is hugely exciting for her.
“As an artist who has a disability, it’s an opportunity to add to the incredible street art in Cork city.”
Chronic pain, whether that’s mental, physical or emotional, is often invisible.
“But that doesn’t mean it’s not real... all too common scepticism means that there’s a stigma for people like me who experience chronic pain, with implications and suspicions that we are imagining the pain we feel. At our most vulnerable point, our integrity is questioned.”
Ciara, who started to create artwork about chronic pain in 2016 following her accident, says that, typically, such art tends to be graphic and often quite gruesome.
“I decided to take my work in a different direction. I use bright colours and delicate lines to balance out the weighty themes. It’s not all doom and gloom. I also explore the light that comes out of pain, for instance, the insight I’ve gained, the self-awareness, the support and the love I have experienced.”
Not to mention the wonders of medical technology. Last year, Ciara was fitted with a spinal cord stimulator “which kind of intercepts the pain.”
When The Echo spoke to Ciara, she said she was experiencing pain at level four out of ten which was a good day for her. Her leg is affected a lot by the weather. In cold and damp conditions, her sciatica is severe.
“It took so long to get a diagnosis. I knew I was walking a bit crooked. I was told I had sciatica neuropathy dropped foot. Discs were compressing in my back.
“My leg won’t heal but the pain should become manageable at some point. I feel my back will heal but it will take time.”
The spinal cord stimulator doesn’t work for everyone, but it has given Ciara great relief.
“Instead of feeling the pain fully, I feel part of it as being like a vibration. I feel this buzzing going through me. You can turn it up or down, depending on how your pain is.
“It’s parallel to my spine, like two electric guitar strings. The wire tucks into the top of my glute which is where the battery pack goes. It’s internal.”
Ciara also finds mindfulness very helpful. And she took part in a trial at NUI Galway involving Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).
“CBT was useful because when you have chronic pain or any kind of medical problem, you carry a huge amount of guilt with you,” she adds.
Ciara wasn’t long married when she had her accident.
“I felt guilty about my husband (who is very supportive) and other people. I could be cancelling plans at the last minute, missing big events. “
Clearly, Ciara has come a long way from the initial aftermath of her accident. Now, she wants to get rid of the stigma of having invisible yet chronic pain, resulting in not being believed.
For Ciara, her pain is all too real but she has found a way to live with it. When someone doesn’t believe she is suffering, she reminds herself that her pain is being questioned because the person has never experienced anything like it.
“It’s good that they haven’t experienced that kind of pain. That’s being very Zen about the whole thing,” says Ciara.